Productivity Hacking or Leisure Battering
When did leisure become a forbidden fruit? At what point did ‘productivity-hacking’ take over our lives? How did our neurochemistry get so irrevocably damaged that the sheer thought of just doing something for the pure fun of doing that thing became an intangible goal?
In 2012 I left a long-term career in restaurant management. During that season of my professional life, I thought I was busy. My employer purported ‘quality of life’ in that their managers only had 50-hour work weeks. I was in my twenties and going to work 5 days a week for 10 hours each day felt like a lot. But what I didn’t appreciate back then was the pure delineation between ‘work time’ and ‘off work time’. When I wasn’t at work… I was simply… free. Afterall, you can’t really manage a restaurant dinner rush from your couch.
The shift-based schedule, late nights, and working holidays and weekends made sense in my early twenties as a solo guy. But then I got married and had a baby. Quickly those hours no longer made sense as I grew into my role as a new father and husband. I needed a change. So, I sought something completely different. I dove into a career in telecommunications, project management. I took a job that allowed me to work remotely. At the onset, going from being locked in a restaurant for 10 hours a day to essentially never having to leave the house provided me a lifestyle that was more novel than I could imagine. Leisurely mornings followed by long lunches all while being able to throw a load of laundry in during the workday felt liberating! I would never go back to an ‘in office’ (or restaurant) work environment… remote work was simply too amazing.
And these freedoms were an easy justification to lean back on when I found myself taking a call after hours or shooting off a couple emails from the couch when I was watching TV with my family. Justifications such as; “Listen, this is just part of the freedom of remote work, I can work whenever I want” would frequently slip out of my mouth as I sat distractedly and half presently with my kids.
The years went by and distracted emails on the couch turned into late night troubleshooting calls… my phone would ring at 2am when there was a tower outage and I’d be quick to bounce up from bed to sit on the line troubleshooting until 5am with the field teams. Again, when my family would ask why I was ok working all day and then again, all night, I’d still use the same justification… “It’s all part of working from home… remember how much freedom this gives me and our family?”
The paradigm had shifted, irrevocably. I had gone from the workday being the workday as a restaurant manager, to the workday being completely blurred with non-work time as a remote project manager. There was no longer a delineation between working and non-working hours. Work came with me in my pocket everywhere I went, it was with me on my nightstand when I tried to sleep, and it was in the palm of my hand when I tried to eat some breakfast with my kids in the morning. I realized that my neurochemistry has shifted… I felt like I needed to always be ‘on’.
This was only exacerbated by the career trajectory that ensued. Project manager to senior project manager. Senior PM to program manager. Program Manager to Director… each step up the career ladder placed more teams working underneath my organization and thus more perceived urgency on me to be available whether it was work time or leisure time.
And as if this story doesn’t already paint a picture of the trajectory away from leisure… then I learned about the ‘hustle economy’. I saw these social media stars and gig economy players winning on the internet all while living a life of apparent freedom. So, I started hustling in the gig economy also. Again, when my family asked, ‘why are you ALWAYS at work?’ the answer was similar: ‘I have to keep the job to pay the bills but if I chase these hustle economy opportunities down long enough, then we’ll have total freedom and the lifestyle we want!’
You name it, I did it. I started a couple airbnb’s, worked at a local farmer’s market, got certified as a health coach and started coaching clients, and somewhere in there I did some freelance writing, affiliate marketing, and content creation.
I was growing as a person and earning a respectable living, yes. I was chasing passions and helping people, yes. I was supporting my family financially, yes. I was trying new things and removing my fear of being a beginner, yes. But all of this perpetuated a cycle of feeling like I needed to be ‘on’ at all times of the day/365 days per year.
So, what is the fix? How do you undo 12+ years of professional wiring that compels you to feel like you need to be completing some type of productive task all the time? Good question, once I answer it, I’ll do a follow up. But for now, as I’m in the depth of the ‘always on’ framework I’ve created for myself… I’m simply going to share some thoughts. Who knows, maybe you, the reader, are reading this to help me answer this question. Because lord knows I feel stuck.
Productivity Hacking or Leisure Battering?
Somewhere along the road, productivity hacking became all the rage. Get online and look at any coach and they’re going to try to sell you on how to manage your schedule, time-block your calendar, speed-read a book a week, limit e-mail chatter, focus on deep work, and use stoic philosophy to better manage your reaction to the circumstances you don’t control (I know, because I am a coach and am guilty of purporting ALL of these paradigms).
But sometimes I sit up at night and wonder… ‘Is all this productivity hacking also contributing to the death of our ability to be spontaneous and leisurely?’ If it’s not a dedicated 30-minute time-block in your calendar, does that mean you’re not allowed to do it? What if sometimes, I just want to take a drive, or play a game, or sit on a bench and stare at the grass? Is that not ok if it’s not strategically built into my productivity hacked calendar?
I’m not saying we need to eliminate productivity and I’m certainly the first to admit that I need my calendar clearly built each week to get it all done. But I’m beginning to think that maybe, just maybe… this arguably neurotic drive to adhere to a perfectly time-blocked calendar is pulling me away from my ability to just be the fun loving and spontaneous guy I think I once was.
What’s the Middle Ground?
Like many over-whelmed 30–40 something year old’s, I’m too busy. My average workday starts at 6AM (appx 15 minutes after my alarm goes off) and usually finishes around 10PM. It isn’t a conventional 8-hour workday, I have it built out so that I work in 2–3-hour blocks while breaking to get the kids ready and off to school, getting a work-out in, picking the kids up, getting them off to their various activities, and preparing a meal or two for us to eat. So, it’s arguable that saying ‘workday’ really could be juxtaposed with the phrase ‘my non-negotiable responsibilities begin at 6am and end at 10pm’.
How does leisure fit into this? I suppose I could stop and watch some TV at 10PM when I wrap up, but of course that would come at the expense of the precious hours of sleep which I absolutely need to be able to function at the level required of me each weekday.
Is there a middle ground here? Or is this just the plight of a working person entering their mid-life with a couple children who are roughly halfway through their childhood?
Can We Make Leisure More Attractive?
All this productivity hacking has re-wired me. I don’t see leisure and think ‘oh that looks nice’. I see leisure and think ‘but what about all of the things I wouldn’t be getting done if I did this?’ This mentality should not be normal. We’ve normalized it. But I must reiterate, it’s not normal.
How do you shift that paradigm? Sometimes I just look to my kids for guidance on this. If they’re not at school or one of their extra-curricular activities, they have an amazing ability to ‘just be’. They can sit and play with a toy, or spontaneously grab their easel and paint and simply paint a picture, just for the fun of it.
The other day my daughter brought a deck of cards out and asked me to play a game with her. I was too busy being productive and told her I would set aside some time to play with her later (because heaven forbid, I just act in the moment… it’s got to be scheduled). I observed her for the following hour, occupying herself while patiently waiting for me to play the game. And it dawned on me, she didn’t care about anything at all in those moments except playing a game with her dad. She didn’t want to play to win, she didn’t want to play to get better, she didn’t want to play because of some competitive need… she just wanted to play for the sake of playing a game leisurely with her busy dad. To her, the spontaneity of leisure is the priority. It is the productivity hack she needed in that moment. She makes leisure attractive but accepting it for what it is: Fun for the pure fun of it.
It’ll be Alright
I didn’t get here quickly; it was a process. And I won’t re-wire myself to be ok ‘not being productive’ quickly either. It’ll take time and a fair amount of introspection to reassess why I am the way I am, and if I am ok staying that way. I didn’t say I was writing this to offer a solution… this is more just a statement of what ‘is’, the reality of how I perceive my world (and I fear many others do too).
Productivity hacking is a means to an end. It is a tactic to survive in a relentless world. But I don’t want to just survive in my world. I want to shape it. I want to create it. And most importantly, I want to take a tremendous amount of joy in it.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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